Secrets of Surviving Engineering School: The Warrior’s Guide to Tactics You Don’t Learn in Textbooks

JAG With 1000 year old Viking Sword

Joel-Anthony Gray With 1000 year old Viking Sword (I have a strong interest in metallurgy)


I finally completed my Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering with what I prefer to phrase as a Concentration, Focus or Specialization in Nanoscience Technology. Forgive me if I don’t call it by it’s given academic term, a “Minor”, because I completed not only the Minor requirements of 18 hours, but an additional 9 hours including Advanced Electron Microscopy, Nanofabrication, Plasma Physics, plus five years of full time industry experience while attending school.

This is why it took a unit of time scientifically designated “a while” for me to complete my degree.

Also, the term Minor makes it sound like something that was done as a casual aside, whereas it was really the impetus and primary reason for pursuing my BSEE. It is also considered an unusually difficult and uncommon Minor as the graduation office advisor said she only knew a handful of other engineering majors who also completed those requirements.

But let’s get to the point of this blog / advice column regarding what I learned along the way – the rules and guidelines that are not explicit, the silence and spaces between words… the knowledge that you did not know you were paying for or how high that price can be.

The Big Takeaways I got from earning a BSEE is:

1) It is NOT just a piece of paper – it is evidence of the harsh commitment and sacrifices you had to make to earn your name in ink, blood, and educational confirmation in our information society.

2) Your entire thinking process and even part of your personality will likely change; generally for the better. I had to learn how to be far more focused, even to the point of ignoring distracting emotions and prioritize what really mattered. You will also discover where the strengths and weaknesses in your learning capabilities are. Do you have trouble with spatial ability, abstract concepts or brute force math? You will certainly get to find out – repeatedly. But again and again, your determination and patience will be tested more than any other area.

3) It was much harder than I thought it would be. Ironically, my final university GPA at graduation of 3.65 was significantly higher than my community college average of 3.35. I attribute this to the fact that as I moved into the university realm, I was compelled to step up my game and took everything more seriously.

Personal note: My younger sister has a Master’s in Speech Pathology from the same school where I received my BSEE and I remember how serious a student she was from an early age. She had trouble accepting anything less than a perfect score, while I was considerably more blase about my grades. Now if I miss ANYTHING on an exam, quiz or homework, it can really irritate me depending on the nature of the mistake as I expect near perfect command of the material.

I relate this as you may also find that your attitudes and performance are not fixed, but can be re-sculpted over time.

4) It pays to lead the curve on everything. Don’t wait until the 1st day of class or even the week before class to find out about your teacher, what the status of your financial aid is, the location of your classrooms, the syllabus policies and what textbook you need. Find out months in advance.

5) If you have to submit paperwork to take a certain class, enroll for next semester or have any critical tasks that need to be completed to move ahead, KEEP A PAPER TRAIL of where that is in the bureaucratic process. Take notes of the date, time and the name of the people involved including their contact information. Get a copy of the submitted paperwork and a receipt that it was submitted including any confirmation numbers. Later, if you need to prove that you turned in that application, paid a fee, or someone told you who to contact next, you have that as a reference and proof if you need.

To put it another way, no one is going to champion or follow-up your educational process like you can. In both attending and working at the university, I found it invaluable to be assertive, confident and even relentless in pursuing a task until it was completed.

6) If you can sign up for early registration – do so. This will help ensure you get the classes, professors and the time slots you want, instead of being forced into the only class that is left open. At the worst, if you delay badly enough, then all of the sections of that “blocking class” will be filled up and you will have to get on a waiting list hoping that someone drops.

One embarrassing mistake I kept making – often the Summer and Fall schedule enrollment would open up at the same time and I would focus on my Summer semester but completely forget to check the Fall semester until weeks later.

Then I would discover that the professor whose section I wanted to take was CLOSED and I had to play : “Check the available seats” game every day until I could enroll. If I was persistent and consistent, I usually lucked out in this area, but it would have been better if I had taken care of it well in advance.


Some of these you have already heard before; others border on common sense, but I like to be thorough.

1) Vet / check out your professor(s) early – like the semester before you take their class. I would often email them months in advance and ask for the syllabus or what textbook was being used if it was not posted.

The tone and content of their answer may also speak volumes about their enthusiasm and teaching modality. My goal was never to find the “Easy A” professor, but someone whose teaching style was likely to enhance my understanding of the subject (which tends to boost your grade) and interface better with my learning preferences.

Reading the university’s internal student evaluations is a good idea and there are other external websites such as Rate My Professors that you can use to “triangulate the truth”. But have a healthy skepticism of overly vengeful remarks or gushing praise which are the 1 and 5 star reviews of potentially extreme perspectives. Also, some of the external websites are not comprehensive, and I found that a few of the more legendary professors from my university were notably missing from the rankings. To get a more objective idea of the grade distribution in past courses, you can look them up on under Course Grades.

Some students can be bitter or have personality/cultural clashes with others and are more likely to lash out at what they perceived as an unfair teaching experience. On the other hand, there was one professor I know (who is a very nice man in person) that I had difficulty with because his teaching style (which appeared to consist of rote memorization) did not mesh well with my desire to understand the subject material. Yet, he kept getting Teacher of the Year awards on a consistent basis and many students liked and recommended him.

Conversely, I had one student I greatly respected who warned me off of one professor repeatedly and said to not take them, but I got into a position to where his course was the only one I could take at the time. As it turns out, he was the best math teacher I ever had and I made one of the highest natural (non-curved) engineering grades ever for a mathematical based class. (a 97 as I recall)

But one caveat is that I visited him very regularly during his office hours so that I made sure that I understood the material completely. He retired not long after, so I am grateful that I had the chance to take his class.

I always appreciated professors who had worked in industry and presented interesting anecdotes and rare knowledge.

In addition, this is the beginning of building a rapport with the professor, whether you wind up taking their class or not.

Also, knowing what textbook(s) you will need gives you a chance to check the reviews on Amazon and positions you to purchase it used at a lower price before everyone starts to buy it the first week of class. If it is in a subject you are particularly interested in, you can begin reading before class begins and have some questions ready if you are unclear on certain concepts. But don’t be surprised if the instructor significantly deviates from the material in order, presentation or amazingly / annoyingly enough, does not actually use the textbook at all.

More commentary on this below.

2) Get to class slightly early, particularly the very first day (I suggest 20 minutes minimum) as you will need time to find the classroom and people tend to establish their sitting position for the rest of the semester based on that initial condition. Speaking of which:

3) Sit in the front row towards the center as studies and my personal experience have shown you are more likely to learn more due to the close proximity of the professor, be less distracted by others on their laptop, phone, Facebook, etc. and you can see the board better.

Seeing the board well can be a big issue as some instructors have either marginal or ambiguous handwriting, plus many symbols in engineering can look alike and you often have to use context to distinguish one Greek letter from another or even a number. While my vision is 20/20 or better and I sat at the front, I sometimes STILL had to raise my hand and ask if the professor really meant: “Mu sub smudge” or something else.

Study the configuration of the room with respect to where the instructor stands and writes. In some cases I found it handy to sit slightly to the left side of center as you are facing the professor.


Because if you are in the center or a bit to the right, often the lecturer’s body will obscure what he is writing as most Western teachers write from left to right. Some professors can write at relativistic speeds, so any delay may cause your transcription to fall behind.

Also, as discussed below, many professors will not allow electronic devices such as laptops and tablets to be utilized unless you are sitting at or close to the front.

4) And even if you have done your due diligence with regard to the class, check the schedule periodically for changes a week or so before the semester starts. I have had room changes and even instructor changes occur after I signed up for a class.


1) Do I need that textbook? I am assuming at this juncture that you have selected the course section / instructor and have the CURRENT syllabus for your upcoming class.

It may seem silly to question the required text listed on the syllabus, but from experience, I have found it valuable (fiscally and otherwise) to double check the reviews of the book on Amazon, talk to former students of the class and even ask the professor themselves.  Why?

In some cases the textbook is barely used at all except for homework assignments in which case borrowing may make more sense than buying it outright IF that is the only use for the book in the course. Some professors have been teaching a course for so long that they have long since compiled the material necessary in handouts, Powerpoint slides, etc. and the book is not even utilized as a primary source.

At the opposite end is the professor who has barely or not taught that particular course at all in the past in which case they may be looking for a text that matches their teaching style.

A true life story illustrates this:

Once I wrote a professor (weeks before the class began) about what textbook was required. His initial answer was TEXTBOOK X (actual title omitted) because that is what the department had been using for years. When I saw the reviews, I read a lot of negative comments about TEXTBOOK X and wrote back suggesting that he look at a few other possibilities.

The result?

He went with one of the other suggestions and thanked me for inviting him to revisit this choice. Ironically, the textbook was not as easy to understand as another one I found, but it did have some other strengths that I came to appreciate.

Incidentally, it is often a good idea to find your own supplementary text(s) if the material is particularly difficult or abstract. Just keep in mind that you will often find that the mathematical formulas and notations used within will probably not entirely match what your professor uses on the homework/exams so be able to recognize and translate when necessary if you go this route.

Keep in mind too that there are some textbooks that are geared more towards TEACHING, as they are good at illustrating the underlying concepts and fundamentals while others are stronger REFERENCE texts and can be distinguished by having lots of charts, tables, equations and being difficult to read through; it is a rare textbook that excels at both. Reference texts are useful for researching specific information on certain topic rather than teaching the subject.

Another true story:

In the course of looking for an additional text to assist me in a notoriously difficult subject after we were well into the semester, a professor personally loaned me a copy of a book which spoke to me with far greater clarity than the assigned text. After the semester was over, I returned it to him and related how much that publication helped me with certain key concepts. (I made an A)

To my surprise, he took me seriously enough to change the standard textbook for his class to the one he had lent. Years later, I talked to students in his subsequent classes and they raved about how much better the new book was.

It does pay to build a rapport with your professor and furthermore, it sometimes benefits the other engineering students that follow.

Blaze a trail of greatness.

2) Your notebook (digital and/or written) and how it is organized is key to your success.

For the digital arena, I will not attempt to discuss the merits of specific brands or models as this sort of information is too transient and there are plenty of other resources out there to help you select. Also, I will not debate between the main OS flavors of Windows, Android, Apple or Linux as by now you already know what you prefer and are comfortable with.

Asus Tablet

Asus Tablet with a physical keyboard (too rare a feature these days)

A lot of students use a tablet or notebook computer as the digital scroll on which they record all relevant data and study from and I will agree that these devices have their place. It is certainly a good idea to download the PowerPoint for the lecture (if available in advance) and if you have a program that allows you to, append notes from the lecture on top of it. Many assignments and classes demand that you perform your homework or labs in an electronic format, or require that you use a specific piece of software to do said task.

There are programs like OneNote and Evernote that allow you to combine snippets of multimedia into pages, folders, etc. so that you can capture and notate every relevant piece of information in nearly every form including audio and visual.

While I can type as fast or faster than I can write, I have found that handwriting the notes work better for me on several levels. For one, engineering uses a lot of Greek symbols, visual charts and other aids that are not easy for me to translate quickly to a Microsoft Word document format. Yes, I am aware of LaTeX and that some people can write quite adeptly in their iPad – I observed that some students can take amazing notes in digital form, and perhaps I need some tutoring in this area to take fuller advantage of these tools. But I generally found that with a few exceptions, these tools hindered as much as they helped and so I stuck with mostly paper and pencil.

Here are the downsides to using an almost purely electronic format:

A) You are dependent on the device working smoothly which includes having a decent battery life, a solid wireless network connection, an uncorrupted operating system with sufficient hardware requirements, and a good interface in the form of either a keyboard that fits your typing style (I generally need a full sized desktop to type at my full potential) or a tablet and stylus that has the responsiveness and resolution to take readable notes. I found out too late that my beloved ASUS Slider shown above (no longer made) is a capacitive touch screen which is generally not as sharp as a resistive style touch screen. Taking notes on it manually is typically more of a pain than it is worth, but it does come in handy for some light typing and research where I don’t want to lug a laptop around. I still love that thing, though the single processor is a bit slow compared to newer quadcore + devices.

B) Notebooks and laptops tend to be heavy, add bulk and I stopped carrying mine to school after about the first year of engineering as I could always find a regular desktop available on campus anyway. Tablets are better, but usually have a smaller screen, keyboard, and if you use the Android OS (which I prefer) it cannot run most normal Windows programs which can be a hassle. (though Polaris Office along with the Adobe Acrobat Reader app and any Internet browser which should handle most routine work)

C) Laptops, tablets and notebooks are more expensive, much more delicate if dropped, and are infinitely more likely to be stolen than your regular 3 ring binder. While at the university, I was appalled at how often you heard about these items going missing and if you keep your entire life on there, it can be most inconvenient, even devastating plus pose a security risk if there is sensitive information on the drive. In the final years that I was completing my BSEE, the university’s IT department was forced to institute a policy of having all school issued laptops encrypted due to an incident involving a stolen device that happened to belong to someone in the medical faculty which contained thousands of critical patient files.

D) Years ago, many professors started instituting a policy of no electronic devices allowed, though you usually have or can get an exception if you are using it exclusively for the lecture at hand. To keep this enforced, some professors insist that you sit on or near the front row. Just to avoid unnecessary confusion, talk to them beforehand first.

E) One helpful piece of technology I use consistently is the camera on my cell phone. It can be of enormous benefit to quickly photograph a board full of notes and transcribe it later if you fall behind in your writing. If you do this, I advise turning off the shutter sound and flash to minimize distraction to the class and instructor.

F) In lectures an inexpensive laser pointer can be very helpful. Very often, I need to ask a professor a question about a very specific part of an equation and I use it to specifically target my area of concern. I recommend the green variety as our eyes are more sensitive to the 532 nm wavelength with a given set power level which is maxed out at just under 5 mW for a Class IIIA laser. Just be courteous and wield it in such a manner as to not point it at the professor or anyone else directly.

*RECENT NOTE – Due to the issues with morons pointing them at airplanes, a number of stores including Amazon have stopped selling these, particularly the green wavelength variety. One of mine burned out and I had to get another off of eBay.

G) One device that may be a decent bridge between a laptop and a phone is a mini-tablet with screen sizes around 7″ diagonal. They are light, have relatively low power consumption, are typically not too expensive, and are easier to read than a cell phone. I never thought I would find the size regime between a large cell phone display and a tablet/notebook to be useful, but it has turned out to work out better than I thought. My favorite use is to download the Powerpoint lecture notes in advance for review in class or while taking a break.

Bear in mind that if you use one without a good electronic screen lock, you can inadvertently leave your GMail or other accounts open to being hacked if the device is lost or stolen. And some people can guess a simple swipe combination by examining the smear pattern on the screen.

Whether you primarily use an electronic device or not, you will almost undoubtedly have a 3 ring binder of some sort and I personally recommend one with a D-Ring holder as these can hold more sheets for a given thickness than a standard circular ring binder. Personally, I lean towards the Staples brands as they are durable, have inner pockets and come in a variety of colors and sizes that can help you organize which class or sets of classes or which.

Staples D Ring Binder 1"

Staples D Ring Binder 1″

H) Save your work in more than one place. As a former IT guy, I believe in the “Rule of Threes” – keep important data in at least 3 different locations with one of them physically offsite. I keep at least one set on my main desktop computer, a copy of all relevant class files on a USB stick, and one more set up in the Internet “cloud” somewhere. I prefer Google Drive, but some are Dropbox fans.

Also, be sure you have a good anti-virus on your device INCLUDING Android devices which have had issue with malware for years. I prefer ESET NOD32 for PCs and Avast Mobile Security for my phone / tablet and other Android OS electronics. Backing up your data may prove to be worthless if you back up a nasty virus as well.

3) Engineering paper is will be something you should become well acquainted with as it is well suited for taking notes and many professors INSIST that assignments be turned in using this particular medium. It is a form of graph paper, preferably with some title sections marked off so that you can write in the date/class/assignment number, etc. and it usually has a characteristic green tint.

What distinguishes it from standard graph paper is the strongly defined inner writing border and the fact that while the graphed squares can be seen, the lines are not strong enough to obscure your writing. (typically printed on the back) An example is shown below:

Standard format Engineering Paper

Standard format Engineering Paper

There are many brands to choose from and the quality ratings change over time as some complain that certain manufacturers start using a cheaper weight of paper. Sometimes you can find it at a local office supply store, but a greater variety can generally be had by shopping online. Regardless, I suggest you keep at least a 500 page supply on hand as you will typically burn through a pad in a very short time, and it is now my de facto and favorite way of recording information for any class or presentation.

4) Mechanical pencils plus a mega eraser. When I first started engineering school in earnest, for a short time I continued my long standing habit of writing everything in pen and this proved to be a serious hindrance as I am constantly correcting my notes in the middle of a lecture. Even if you are perfect at transcribing, sometimes the instructor makes a mistake and you have to go back and edit accordingly.

With ink, you wind up with a lot of unsightly smudges / mark-outs and in cases where you have to redraw a schematic or other picture in order to rescale everything, don’t be surprised if starting on a fresh page is your only clean way out. The problem is that this wastes time as you will lag behind the professor’s writing AND his comments on the subject.

I was dating another engineering student at the time, and I remember her wry comment about how I was going to have to start using a mechanical pencil like everyone else. Well, she was right (an annoying habit of hers) and within a semester I switched back to pencil. You want a mechanical pencil because there are no pencil sharpeners in class rooms anymore and it is much faster to just click the lead out as you go.

For lead diameter, I recommend a 0.7 mm for general purpose as it combines sturdiness with fine detail. I will use a 0.5 mm if I need to make a crib sheet and compress as much info as possible onto the page and the model I use fits neatly into my flat logistics notebook. (but it is also fragile and breaks off easily) The 0.9 mm or larger feels a bit to kludgy to me, but ultimately it is a personal preference that you should decide on early.

Also, for an eraser, I encourage using a separate large white stick eraser pen with the click stop such as the Pentel Clic Eraser – Retractable. (model PENZE22A for the black version)

Pentel Retractable Eraser Pen (BLACK)

Pentel Retractable Eraser Pen (BLACK)

One of them will last a long time and it helps to extend the life of the often small eraser that comes with the mechanical pencil.

But still keep a set of ink roller pens and a few permanent markers in your writing arsenal as a pencil is not suitable for all writing tasks. (filling out an official form or marking something besides paper)

5) Backpacks – My Personal Favorite

I cannot rave enough about this backpack that I purchased about a year into engineering school. I originally started with a worn out Nortel bag that went the distance from when I worked there, but I finally had to concede that it was looking too raggedy and didn’t have enough space.


  • Durable as hell
  • Lots of pockets, straps and loops for hanging things on
  • Great capacity
  • Looks good

And while there are other backpacks that have similar characteristics, what I love about this one is that at least two main compartments are “top loaded” which means you can just reach in and grab your keys, wallet, etc. in a few seconds which is incredibly convenient. Also the side webbing holds my flashlight, pocket knife, and other devices that clip on for quick-release deployment.

Over the years, I have honed a near perfect system where I know everything is and these items are situated in compartments that are practically tailor made for their respective dimensions.

The ONLY con is that it encourages you to stuff this thing full of things like tools, a medical kit, books, etc. and before you know it, it will weigh 30 pounds. In some ways, that could be seen as a good aspect as you will get additional exercise from the extra weight.

Wegner Computer Backpack

Wegner Computer Backpack


This is probably one of the single most important things you can do to enhance your class experience besides going through the normally expected rote of showing up, paying attention taking notes, etc.


1) It is important that you show up in front of your professor at other times than your scheduled class because this expands your relationship to an arena outside of the lecture time and forms another connecting point. Have you ever run into a person from work outside of work, like at the supermarket, etc.? Unless your relationship is already adversarial, did you notice the change in tonality when you saw that person at work again? That is because you have now encountered each other in more than one arena, and that tends to encourage a little more rapport and trust.  It won’t on it’s own make you best friends, but that is not the goal here which leads to…

2) The goal is not to be pals or suck up to your professor. While a university professor is evaluating you for a grade, there is an objective distance they are supposed to maintain and you should respect that. What you want to do is have an open channel for communication about the course, material, how you are doing, etc. If you talk about other things, then so be it, but try to stay focused on the course at hand.

3) When you go, have at least one decent question about the material itself. This shows initiative, interest and that you are willing to extend effort to master a topic as best you can within the time allotted. Keep in mind that other students may be waiting or already there, so you may have to cut to the chase, particularly in the more difficult classes.

4) Visit them early and as often as you can. DO NOT wait until the day before the exam to ask them to explain an entire concept unless it was just brought up in the previous lecture. For one,  you may have to contend for attention from other students that also waited until the last minute. Furthermore, it makes you look unprepared and desperate UNLESS you have already been coming to office hours regularly throughout the semester.

5) Office hours in private are the best time to negotiate an absence or potential point of contention. There are a lot of rules that are set out in the syllabus and it is best that you follow them. On the occasion (hopefully rare) that you need an exception, your best chance of getting a favorable result is to talk to the professor alone instead of bringing it up in class or in front of other students.

I kept seeing students make this rookie mistake again and again, particularly trying to argue with a professor about points on an exam or some other issue like if they could make up a lab, etc. If you do this in a public forum, you will force their hand to go by the letter of the law as already laid out as you risk undermining their authority. And any capable professor is expected to be the authority while in that classroom environment whether you like it or not. It isn’t about fair, but about structure and hierarchy. You won’t win, and even if you do, you may incur an enmity that will not be worth the 2 points you gained on that last exam.

On rare occasions, you may find that talking to the professor exasperates you more than it helps. Do your best to be gracious, don’t show your emotions and thank the professor for their time. Under no circumstances should you exhibit hostility or a belligerent attitude. I actually knew a professor who threatened to call campus security on one student and another that essentially had to throw students out of their office (not physically) because they didn’t know where that line was. Trust me – you will run into supervisors and managers in the work world like this and you might as well practice your game face now.

But on the whole, I found this to be very helpful and worth easily 15-20 % of your actual grade at the end of the day – I don’t care what the syllabus says.

I took some classes in which the professor taught multiple sections, and he related that in the previous semester out of 90 enrolled students, not one came to his office hours. The semester I was taking it, only I and one other student (who really was a former Navy SEAL) dared the professor’s personality (he had a reputation for being sarcastic and harsh – I just found him amusing) and we both came away with A’s in the class despite the rigorous material. But the difference between us and the other students is that we both had the confidence to get past the threshold guardian. (reference mythology and Jungian psychology for an explanation)

An interesting factoid: the professor that had to throw some students out of his office (not physically) had far more trouble with graduate students than undergrad students. I was a little stunned at this trend as I assumed that the more experienced students would know better, but the stakes are high in engineering grad school. I am not excusing their behavior, but it is possibly a commentary on how tough a path that is.


Almost without exception, your core engineering and elective course grades will depend anywhere from 70 % – 90 % on exam performance. Personally, I don’t like this system as I do not find it analogous to the real world where I have yet to answer a set of equations as a part of my paying job.

And there was one class I took my final semester dealing with semiconductor fabrication where the instructor completely rebalanced the typical grade breakdown to where the exams only amounted to about 30 – 40 %. (which is nearly unheard of) Some traditionalists may balk at a class where the Final Exam was only worth 5% of your grade, but the quizzes and homeworks were deceptively tough enough that at the mid-semester, more than half the class was failing.

Some students excel in engineering school because they are Professional Test Takers that have an uncanny intuition for feeling out what will be on the exam as opposed to really understanding how the information applies.

Whatever my reservations about the traditional methods of evaluating engineering students, I have to concede that it is worthwhile to learn some tactics that maximize your grades. Here are some tips:

1) Try to gain ground early in the semester while the subject material may still not be too advanced or complex. If you can do well on the first exam, you won’t get pushed up against the wall as hard on the tougher exams later in the semester. Bear in mind that many professors graduate the weighting of the exams with the later ones counting more than the first.

Also, if you set a good example early on, then if something unexpected comes up later in the semester (get sick, family issues, etc.) then the professor is much more likely to cut some slack on late assignments and so forth AFTER you have established yourself as a serious student. Again, talk to them privately in person (office hours preferably) if you need to discuss something with them. Also in classes with a strong attendance policy, sending an email in advance letting your professor know you won’t be in or will be late due to extenuating circumstance is a good idea.

But do your best to keep your absences rare (don’t make a habit of it) and avoid making excuses.

2) Do the obvious – show up for every class, take all the notes, do the homework and get help when you need it. But try to make a note of where the professor keeps repeating a point or seems to telegraph emphasis on a particular problem. In my notes I will asterisk that point or do something else to flag it as critical.

3) Some professors will come right out and tell you that you better know how to evaluate/solve a certain type of problem or set of problems. Others will tell you that all of the material is fair game and refuse to give any hints. In my experience, I would tend to go with the latter assumption as I have had too many instructors practically swear up and down that certain concepts will be on the exam, only to come test time and find out that the exam differed significantly enough from what was “advertised” to affect your ability to answer.

If the exam looks nothing like you expected, the human tendency is to panic. This emotion will not help, so it is best to be mentally prepared in advance to methodically attack the exam bit by bit until you have done your best.


One of the questions that professors hate the most is being asked in the specific sense “What will be on the exam?”  It is okay to ask what chapters, homeworks, etc. are covered in a general sense, but don’t ask for the keys to the city as any good professor will not and shouldn’t tell you. Also, most professors are too savvy to past exams being kept on file by students trying to cheat the system and will make up a final just a few days or even the night before the test.

I have found the best way to phrase the question is to ask: “What strategy should I use to study for the exam?”

Be on the lookout for review sessions and take advantage of them; particularly sense at that point in time the professor either has the exam in mind OR the questions asked by you and your classmates may steer the exam in a certain direction.

4) Even if you are doing consistently well throughout the semester, do not let up. Keep the pressure on as you want an overwhelmingly crushing victory (an A+) if possible to increase your competence, confidence and make up for the occasional class that you may struggle with.


One activity you had better get used to in engineering is studying and being effective at it. If you are taking a full time load and then some, it is critical that you carve out a physical and temporal place where you can consistently read, do homework and study for exams.

1) If you can find a place on campus, then great. But I found it hard to find a single place that was not intermittently occupied or quiet enough for me to return to again and again. One benefit I got from being an officer of the Biomedical Student Group on campus is that I had a private office with Internet access where I could retreat to. No windows, no interruptions, and even my cell phone did not work in there.

Once in the university newspaper, they listed several spots that were underutilized and perfect for study, but ultimately you will probably have to scout around yourself and do it before you need them.

2) The library is supposed to be quiet, but I found it too distracting unless you booked a private study room.

3) Set up your own study space at home. Ideally it should be well lit with plenty of horizontal space to spread books, papers, etc. around and not have any distraction in your direct visual or peripheral vision. (like a window, other people and so forth)

4) If you are easily distracted by noise, find an area or a time when it is quieter. At one time I had roommates and invested in MLV (Mass Loaded Vinyl) which I installed on the door along with weatherstripping along the bottom. It made a substantial difference in cutting down on the ambient sound level from external noise. Some people work better with white noise or certain kinds of music. (I can’t do any serious studying with music, but everyone is different)

Here is a good resource for materials like the ones I purchased:


1) One of the most underutilized resources on campus is the university library, as most students seem to use it for quiet or group study only. Grad students make better use of it, but typically for materials that directly inform their research.

I have found that the library is a powerful tool – for both getting your hands on books that you didn’t even know existed or for downloading valuable publications that you normally have to pay quite a bit per page to read. The former is excellent for supplementing your textbook, and the latter is valuable for the occasional research paper that you may need to write.

2) If the book or resource you seek is not immediately available, you can almost invariably get it through the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) system. It is far cheaper (free) than paying for the book on Amazon (often the books I ask for are in the $100 – $250 range) with the only caveat being that you can only check it out once per request – no renewals. So be sure when the library asks for “Date not needed after” that it really is the date point at which you won’t need it.

3) YouTube and other online scientific resources such as Khan’s Academy, MIT OpenCourseware, etc. can be very helpful in getting a difficult concept across. I am a visual person, and a well done 5 minute animation can communicate fundamentals of active devices, organic chemistry, quantum mechanics and DNA replication far more easily than reading several pages of dense material. It also makes going back and doing the textbook reading more comprehensible.

4) Often, you can find clever software animations at university sites that employ Flash or Java to simulate circuits, signals and many other phenomena with varying parameters. Just be prepared for mild computer glitches as your browser may automatically block certain content from loading.

5) Get familiar with your university system for finding teachers, sending email through the school *.edu system, looking up your grades, and submitting homework. There are sometimes hidden features which are not well advertised – talk to your schoolmates about this. One that I only found out about in my final year was the ability to group email other students in the class a week before classes started. That is how I found my Senior Design partner.


One suggestion that I have yet to see for an ongoing engineering student is to set up your own lab that parallels your studies. If you are an electrical engineer, you should have a basic toolbox (with physical tools) and a designated work area for soldering circuits and have design software loaded on your computer that you practice with. Strong suggestions are Matlab, Labview, and PSPICE / LTSPICE or another circuit simulator program for electrical engineering majors. If you are an ME, then Solidworks should be close at hand.

Regardless of your major, with the growing Maker movement, it would be good to have familiarity with one or more programmable hardware suites like Arduino, Parallax Basic Stamp, Raspberry Pi, etc. Most Senior Design projects use at least one of these flavors somewhere in the process or final product.

A great deal of being successful in engineering school and the work world beyond is getting an intuitive feel for the concepts by doing, not just reading, taking notes, tests and completing homework assignments.

But aren’t the scheduled labs enough to take care of that?

In my experience, no… I have seen too many students show up in lab not knowing that an electrolytic capacitor is polarized (and has oriented a certain way or they tend to not work in a pyrotechnic fashion) or how to operate an oscilloscope effectively.

When you are in lab, you have to follow a very regimented structure with a TA and a lab partner, and there is something about free form experimentation that engages curiosity more effectively. I believe this is because you don’t have to worry about a grade or showing up somewhere at a certain time, and the leeway to do something a bit incorrectly without academic penalties opens you up to being more okay with mistakes. In fact, I have made some of my most interesting discoveries by just playing around with an electronics kit.

Here is one of the best ones on the market here:

Electronic Experiments Kit

Elenco 500 Electronic Experiments Kit  (not available anymore on Amazon – try eBay or a similar kit)    (Last Known Link – copy and paste in your browser)

And if your chosen major is more slanted towards biology, mechanical engineering, chemistry or other fields, then I encourage you to check out kits made by companies such as Thames and Kosmos, Vernier and Home Science Tools.


  • Dealing with inconsistent education
  • Avoiding students that hold you back (group project pitfalls and stupid lab partner tricks)
  • Engineering Calculators – which model to use?


Let nothing stop you.

As you approach graduation, you may find or be presented with unusual obstacles or even opposition from unexpected angles. Even my own mother started talking to me about changing majors (to physical therapist.. what the hell?) when I was in my final year which made no sense because she has always admired engineers and the field they work in.

I had people at work tell me I was wasting my time and that the degree would not do me any good. If you are female, you may get other discouraging messages from our culture / society; my guess is because people are threatened by what you may accomplish.

Personal difficulties may threaten to derail you. My advice is to push through any way you can.

Do not relent until that diploma is in your god damn hand.

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